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College football defenses that made biggest jumps (and nosedives) in 2016

Colorado made a huge jump, and Missouri fell badly off course.

Washington State v Colorado Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

It’s hard to sustain defensive success in college football. The teams that can do it — like Alabama and, to a lesser extent Wisconsin — enjoy huge success because they have defenses that keep them in games every single year. Other teams’ defenses rise and fall, because this sport moves in cycles. Coaches change jobs all the time, and the best players come and go every couple of years.

This is a post about teams that made massive jumps or declines on the defensive side of the ball in 2014. There are many instances of both, based on changes in Defensive S&P+ ranking from 2015 to 2016. That’s a metric that adjusts for opponent strength and crunches play-by-play data to get a sense of a defense’s true quality. Here’s this post’s counterpart, which measures the same changes on offense.

2016’s 14 biggest risers in Defensive S&P+

Team Def Rank 15 Def Rank 16 Def Change
Team Def Rank 15 Def Rank 16 Def Change
Central Florida 112 30 82
Indiana 110 31 79
Colorado 89 12 77
Rutgers 118 56 62
Arkansas State 91 34 57
Oregon State 104 49 55
Tulane 101 47 54
Army 120 66 54
Tulsa 127 77 50
South Carolina 95 50 45
UL-Lafayette 113 68 45
Cincinnati 97 53 44
Georgia State 96 52 44
Kansas 126 82 44
  • Scott Frost’s UCF turnaround has taken off quickly. When Frost came to Orlando from Oregon, he brought Ducks outside linebackers coach Erik Chinander to be the Knights’ coordinator. UCF transformed in one season from one of the worst defenses in college football to a solid one. Then Frost’s staff landed the best Group of 5 recruiting class on Signing Day, blowing away the rest of the AAC.
  • Speaking of Oregon, the Ducks made an incredible hire in stealing Colorado coordinator Jim Leavitt. He got to Boulder for 2015 and significantly improved a defense that had been a dumpster fire. This past season, the Buffs’ defense became elite, with an athletic, havoc-wreaking secondary that backed up a sturdy front. This was a multi-year process, but CU grew a lot.
  • It’s not all bad, Rutgers.
  • It’s not all bad, Kansas.

2016’s 16 biggest decliners in Defensive S&P+

Team 2015 Rank 2016 Rank Change
Team 2015 Rank 2016 Rank Change
Missouri 10 89 -79
Akron 37 106 -69
South Florida 49 110 -61
Marshall 42 97 -55
Connecticut 32 87 -55
Bowling Green 61 115 -54
Florida Atlantic 76 128 -52
Ole Miss 23 74 -51
Navy 51 100 -49
Kent State 19 65 -46
Toledo 25 70 -45
Illinois 15 59 -44
Northern Illinois 53 94 -41
Middle Tennessee 82 118 -36
Mississippi State 38 73 -35
East Carolina 69 104 -35
  • Missouri was the country’s single biggest riser on offense. Unfortunately, it was the single biggest faller on defense. The defense was a little bit more inept against the pass than the run, but it was bad against both, allowing efficiency and explosiveness against the run and the pass.
  • USF also paired a big offensive jump with a big defensive decline, with an elite offense and terrible defense. Bulls coach Willie Taggart is now the coach at Oregon, but he’s got Colorado miracle-worker Leavitt helping as his DC.
  • UConn ostensibly fired Bob Diaco because he made no progress in three years. If you want to zoom in closer, that the Huskies cratered on defense might’ve been the tip of the spear. Diaco’s a defensive mind, and his team couldn’t defend.
  • You could say something similar for Lovie Smith at Illinois. Smith’s one of the godfathers of the Tampa 2 defense, and he led a defense-oriented Chicago Bears franchise to a handful of playoff appearances and a Super Bowl loss. He didn’t take the Illini job until after Signing Day last year, so he can only bear so much responsibility. But his D still didn’t do a good enough job to have any real shot in the Big Ten.

Wondering about your team? Here’s the whole country:

Defensive S&P+ from 2015 to 2016

Team 2015 Rank 2016 Rank Change
Team 2015 Rank 2016 Rank Change
Central Florida 112 30 82
Indiana 110 31 79
Colorado 89 12 77
Rutgers 118 56 62
Arkansas State 91 34 57
Oregon State 104 49 55
Tulane 101 47 54
Army 120 66 54
Tulsa 127 77 50
South Carolina 95 50 45
UL-Lafayette 113 68 45
Cincinnati 97 53 44
Georgia State 96 52 44
Kansas 126 82 44
Kansas State 83 42 41
Miami-FL 52 13 39
Houston 63 25 38
South Alabama 107 71 36
NC State 44 11 33
SMU 124 91 33
Troy 78 45 33
Idaho 130 98 32
North Texas 125 93 32
Eastern Michigan 133 102 31
Old Dominion 111 80 31
North Carolina 72 44 28
Stanford 43 18 25
LSU 28 3 25
Wake Forest 46 22 24
Western Michigan 93 69 24
UCLA 48 26 22
Virginia Tech 39 17 22
Nebraska 54 33 21
USC 41 20 21
Auburn 29 9 20
Wyoming 116 96 20
Iowa 33 15 18
Ball State 119 101 18
Baylor 75 58 17
Western Kentucky 60 43 17
UTSA 105 90 15
Appalachian State 40 27 13
New Mexico State 131 120 11
Washington State 74 63 11
Miami-OH 85 75 10
Arizona 114 105 9
Colorado State 90 81 9
TCU 59 51 8
Temple 24 16 8
Duke 56 48 8
Memphis 79 72 7
Notre Dame 34 28 6
Rice 128 122 6
Texas State 132 127 5
Texas Tech 129 125 4
Ohio State 9 5 4
Florida State 14 10 4
Florida 7 4 3
Fresno State 86 83 3
Oklahoma State 70 67 3
BYU 31 29 2
San Diego State 26 24 2
Texas 62 60 2
Louisville 21 19 2
Penn State 16 14 2
Arkansas 65 64 1
Michigan 3 2 1
UNLV 117 116 1
Clemson 6 6 0
UTEP 123 123 0
Alabama 1 1 0
Washington 8 8 0
Virginia 77 78 -1
Georgia Tech 55 57 -2
Wisconsin 5 7 -2
Boise State 36 39 -3
Ohio 57 61 -4
Massachusetts 98 103 -5
Minnesota 17 23 -6
West Virginia 30 37 -7
Texas A&M 27 36 -9
Hawaii 100 109 -9
Utah State 35 46 -11
Pittsburgh 50 62 -12
Southern Miss 71 84 -13
New Mexico 108 121 -13
Florida International 102 117 -15
Charlotte 92 108 -16
Air Force 67 85 -18
Kentucky 68 86 -18
Boston College 2 21 -19
Utah 18 38 -20
UL-Monroe 106 126 -20
Buffalo 88 111 -23
California 84 107 -23
Georgia 11 35 -24
San Jose State 87 112 -25
Oregon 94 119 -25
Nevada 99 124 -25
Purdue 73 99 -26
Syracuse 66 92 -26
Michigan State 13 41 -28
Vanderbilt 12 40 -28
Northwestern 4 32 -28
Georgia Southern 47 76 -29
Central Michigan 58 88 -30
Iowa State 64 95 -31
Arizona State 81 114 -33
Oklahoma 22 55 -33
Louisiana Tech 80 113 -33
Maryland 45 79 -34
Tennessee 20 54 -34
Mississippi State 38 73 -35
East Carolina 69 104 -35
Middle Tennessee 82 118 -36
Northern Illinois 53 94 -41
Illinois 15 59 -44
Toledo 25 70 -45
Kent State 19 65 -46
Navy 51 100 -49
Ole Miss 23 74 -51
Florida Atlantic 76 128 -52
Bowling Green 61 115 -54
Marshall 42 97 -55
Connecticut 32 87 -55
South Florida 49 110 -61
Akron 37 106 -69
Missouri 10 89 -79